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People Under the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights shine above a team of dogs pulling a sled in an icy landscape.

With only one week available for off-island travel during the entire winter semester abroad in London, most of my classmates chose to head towards the warmer southern climates. Only a select few of us, myself included, chose to plunge ourselves deeper into the cold, seeking a different adventure. We wanted to witness one of the most fierce and breathtaking shows nature had to offer, and we wanted to do it right.

The Sami are known as the people under the northern lights, and for good reason. These indigenous people of Norway have been settled in Scandinavia for as far back history can go. Like many indigenous cultures, the Sami are known for living off the land and using their perfected art of reindeer herding to provide for most of their needs. Most reindeer herders spend much of their time out in the Scandinavian wilderness under the polar lights, which feature frequently in their polytheistic religion.

Today it’s easy to book a sled dog trip mush out into the Jotunheimen to catch the aurora borealis. While mushing is not unique to the Sami people, before the advent of snow mobiles, the method of travel was one of their main choices since it fared so well in the snow. Going mushing with a local guide is the perfect opportunity to experience the vast expanse of the national forest and the northern lights.

A man dressed in bright purple clothing adjusts the harness on a reindeer.

A visit to the Norsk Folksmusuem in Oslo is a great way to get acquainted with Sami culture, both how it is today and how it was in the past. The museum has a large replica site of a Sami camp and a large collection of artifacts and cultural documents for visitors to interact with.

There are several Sami festivals that are held in various times and places in Norway. These festivals provide cultural music and dancing, reindeer racing and crafts, and traditional Sami food for visitors to try. Festivals likes these celebrate both the culture of the Sami and various holidays. It’s also a chance to try some of their famous reindeer dishes. Visitors should be warned, however, every part of the reindeer, from the antlers to the tongue, gets used. While the modern world no longer requires such a resourceful use of the animal, many Sami continue to follow the tradition as a way to honor both their ancestors and nature.

A few notable festivals to attend are Easter in Kautokeino, and the Sami festival in Tromsø, which lasts an entire week, and is also usually a good time to go and see some polar lights.

Finally, to help fight the cold, another popular activity, which has been adopted by most Norwegians as well the Sami, is a relaxing trip to the sauna. You’ll notice that most saunas, especially in Oslo, are actually boats. This offers a great view of the fjord and the majestic Oslo opera house, but also something even more important: immediate access to the water.

Sunset over a European town on the edge of the water.

Since salt water has a naturally lower freezing temperature, visitors probably won’t have to carve a hole in the ice, but rest assured the water is well below freezing. The shock of running from a 105°F sauna and jumping into icy water is a sure way to get your blood pumping and gives your skin a pleasant burning tingle that is actually surprisingly good for your immune system.

McKay Rappleyea